Most people reading this know me from coaching high school hockey for the last 15+ years. I’m the heavily tattooed, loud, opinionated, bald headed biker looking guy who would do anything for his players. What if I told you that hardened external appearance was far from where this story started?
I grew up in Windsor, CT on Wilson Avenue. Basically it’s the last street in town before Hartford’s notorious North End. It was the 80’s when my parents divorced; I was 3 years old. I wanted to play hockey so bad. I loved every part of it. My dad took me to many Whalers games as a kid (he had season tickets). Annoyingly, I wanted to be in our seats early for warmups so I could watch the players and every move that they made. I would memorize the drills and vividly remember Kevin Dineen taking one-timers from the top of the circles until well after the last second ticked off the clock. After the game the ride home was happy or sad depending on the result. The 10-minute ride home would consist of breaking down every play I could recall from the game.
As time passed I finally got enough courage to ask my single mother to play the most expensive sport in the world. She said NO! Her reason: it’s too dangerous. Wow, just like that my hockey playing dreams were smashed at 6 years old. (We definitely couldn’t afford it anyway.) That didn’t deter my love for the game or my passion to play. Pond hockey, street hockey, every Whalers game or Jr. Whalers meet and greet would have to fuel my desire for the game…for now.
Moving to East Windsor wasn’t a far move but it was far removed from the world I came from. We got lucky and my mom and step dad were able to purchase a house from a family member well below cost. The house was over 200 years old and needed a ton of work, but it made my mom happy to be safe in the country, as she called it. I was bored!
Meeting kids and getting to know the lay of the land was pretty easy for me as I was always an outgoing kid. Some of the first people I met were Dave and Steve. They were brothers who were always in trouble. Not bad trouble but mischievous like many young boys. The brothers invited me to their house and convinced me to ask again about hockey since they both played. Their dad was a coach and Enfield was a few minutes away. Enfield Hockey Association was a top organization in CT at the time so it made sense to me at least. My mom finally relented and said yes. Looking back, I KNOW we still couldn’t afford it but she knew how much it meant to me. I never knew what a life changing event that would be.
“Can he skate?”
I think any player you ask can tell you about their first time on the ice. It was like 5:50 a.m. and I was in skates (old ones like Gordie Howe wore) shin pads, gloves that were borrowed and a helmet. A.K.A. I was a Bender. Before we even got on the ice for tryouts the coach asked my step dad if I could skate. His answer “oh yeah he played in Windsor”. He was drunk as usual but we will get into that later. Whelp, thanks to my step dad I was thrown into an open squirt in-house tryout and couldn’t even skate backwards! I ended up being a 3rd liner on my squirt in-house team. I was ecstatic!
I practiced religiously. I skated with weights on my skates in practice, 2 pounds per leg to help make me faster. I bought used roller blades to practice skating when I wasn’t on the ice. Many days I would skate miles and miles with bricks in a backpack to make it harder. I used old sticks in the driveway to perfect my slap shot every day before getting picked up for school. I was getting better every week, every month, and every year.
I made friends along the way and even made a few top teams in my age group at EHA. I had many coaches, friends and my drunken step dad to thank. Having to wake him up from his previous night’s binging made me responsible and able to make it to the rink on time. I would wake up 2 hours early or so get on my gear and wake him up. It usually took several attempts for him to get going since most times he was probably still feeling it from the night before. Sometimes I would lie and say practice was earlier but that was in extreme cases that I felt were worth the beating, screaming or both that would result from doing so.
Rides to and from the rink were most times an adventure as well. There were the days I had to grab the steering wheel because he was passing out, the drunken behavior at the rink or the ”you played terrible out there” talks on the way home. Often times it was a combination of all of the above. My mom had no clue about the totality of it all. At this point she had 2 other kids 18 months apart and 10 years my junior at home on the same salaries. It made me who I am today.
My friend Dave was someone I met at hockey. He was from Enfield. We met when we were about 11 years old. He grew up in a similar family dynamic. No money, single mom, grew up in a tough neighborhood and understood me when I said my step dad was “not feeling good”. Dave and I would sneak off into the woods of East Windsor and find little ponds to have our own private practices. We would set up drills and plays scoring on our boots we would use as a goal. I was Ron Francis or Craig Janney and he was always Kevin Dineen or Wayne Gretzky. This was our salvation, our escape and a way to get away from the reality of home. Dave and I would become inseparable over these next few years, teammates and best friends the whole time.
As I got closer and closer to high school age, the reality began to set in. East Windsor had no high school team. I was in 8th grade and so was Dave. Our plan was that he would play at Fermi and I would transfer to Rockville to be on their hockey… err I mean become part of their Vocational Agricultural program. Wink, wink. A few boys before me from East Windsor had done the same thing and were playing there already. I would be counting down the days.
Check back next week for Part II of Confessions of a Co-op Kid by Jesse Peters.